Achrei Mot/K’doshim 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Achrei Mot/K’doshim 5778

Let’s talk a little bit about aspirations.  What is it that you want?  If you could have anything or be anything, what would that be?

There’s a simple poem:

If I could be anything in the world,
I would be a bird so I could spread my wings and fly away.
If I could be anything in the world,
I would be an oak tree so that I can see the horizon.
If I could be anything in the world,
I would be the ocean traveling far and wide.
If I could be anything in the world,
I would be a beautiful flower spreading joy to people that see me.
If I could be anything in the world,
I would be a child to have the heart of gold and see people in a good light again.
If I could be anything in the world,
I would always be HAPPY!

What are your greatest desires?  Health?  We all want to be healthy.  Long life?  Wealth?  Well, we all would be wealthy if given the choice.

In a questionnaire I read that was given to little children, the question was asked, if you could have anything, what would it be? A second-grade girl said: I would want to wear glasses, like Maggie.

We all have unfulfilled desires.  Don’t you?

I have a great personal and funny recollection.

If I’ve told it before, it is only because I’m getting old.

Twenty-five years ago this synagogue sponsored the greatest tour of Israel.  We called it “HaTiyyul.”  Little did we know that it was THE tour.

Seven buses made it the biggest synagogue tour in Israel’s history.  Sure there have been bigger Federation and corporate tours, but seven buses from one shul!  That was something.

Here’s a simple recollection.  The first day in Jerusalem we took the kids aside at the Kotel … the West Wall.  Our guide described the tradition of writing notes and placing them in the wall.  He said you are to write down your greatest hope or desire … and perhaps it will come true.

Not my favorite religious message to my kids, but what can you do?  I was the Rabbi, not the tour guide!  I was there with my three kids.  Noah, who was five, took this task very seriously.  He didn’t tell me what he wrote.  As with the proverbial birthday candles, he feared if in telling me the wish it may not come true.

Fast forward ten days after travel and visits.  Late Saturday night we get on the bus to leave for the airport and we decide to stop at the Kotel … a spiritual farewell, (The Kotel was quite different 25 years ago.)

We get there, my little son asks for a pencil and paper … and he writes a note, which I see:  Dear God, I want to fly … by Tuesday!

I asked him what he wrote last time.  He said, “Last time I just wrote: Dear God, I want to fly.  It hasn’t worked.”

I remember as a little kid wanting to fly.  And no doubt that’s part of the attraction of superheroes.

I think that I found something in the Torah this week— in parashah Kedoshim, the section that contains the holiness code. Here in the middle parshah of the entire Torah — here, in the place rabbis teach us is the center of the entire Torah — are the words that should frame a Jew’s greatest desire.  It’s not by mistake that at the center of our Torah, our most profound possession, it states:  You shall be holy.

Kedoshim Tehiyu … You should be holy.  Ki Kadosh Ani Adonoi Ehloheichem – Because I the Lord Your God am holy.

Note the words don’t say “You are holy” … rather that “You should be holy.”  In other words, this is hopeful; this is aspiration.  This is a goal of the most important things to hope for:  THIS IS IT!

When I began and asked what you would want to be if you could be anything, how many thought:  I want to be holy. None of us did.  And yet almost all of us take this tradition seriously. We take this religion really seriously.  And we tend to think that holiness is for others … perhaps people who live lives that are only devoted to service — be it service of humanity or service of God.

No one would dare say … I am holy.  It sounds pretentious, it sounds like an attitude of superiority.

Now, I know we could speak about “the idea of the holy” literally for days.  We could study all its nuance texts and look at the way the rabbis and great thinkers consider holiness.

You should be holy because God is holy is stated over and again … but it is never exactly defined.  So maybe it is in the mystery, the uncertainty and the unknowable, that we approach holiness.

This morning I’d like to simply take a few ideas for us to consider.

One is that we have holy times and holy places.  There is something in common here.  These moments set aside.  Periods of time that are made different than other periods. We do certain things; we don’t do other things.  Holy places are those that demand special reverence.  Hopelessness implies separateness.

The midrashic work, the Sifra, interprets the phrase “you shall be holy” to mean “you shall be perushim,” meaning “separated.”  Holiness, in this view means being set apart.  (The word “perushim” is also the Hebrew word for the ancient Pharisees who saw themselves as separate and holy.)  The Sifra explains that God is essentially saying, “Just as I am holy, you should be holy; just as I am separate, you should be separate.”

There was only Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and everything associated with it was holy.

Is this space we are in now holy?  I think so, because it is devoted to words of holiness, to thoughts that are holy, to the study of a holy text.  It is set aside only for the most special moments.  It is a separate place.

A contemporary teacher said that we are to be holy because God is holy.  God is … the ultimate other.  To be holy is to be set aside, different rather than other than.

Throughout history, we have seen Jews and the Jewish communities that want to exist apart, separate.  Hasn’t this been problematic?  It has created great resentment.

I say the following -—- kind of “tongue and cheek” -—- but it is a real observation.

You know I was in Italy recently.  In every city we visited there was a ghetto at some point in history … the places where Jews were forced to live separately.  And we had some pretty bad feelings about being in the ghetto.

So this past week, a lovely friend took some of us to lunch at a local country club; it could have been any of a number of clubs in the area.  I got up, looked around the room, and I thought about 98 percent of the people sitting there were Jewish.  It could have been a Kiddush!!!

We make a choice to be separate.  Is it a choice to be holy?  I don’t think so. I think it’s more about comfort and being with our own.  So simply being separate is not what creating holiness is about.

The modern philosopher and thinker Martin Buber addressed this in the following way.  He said Israel — the people — are to be holy, not by withdrawing from the world but by being a part of the world. And just as God is everywhere, and God is a part of all people and living things … we too must strive to be a part of the world.  And he said, we are called upon to exhibit ethical and spiritual excellence that influences others, that can change the world.

In the Torah, we see that there are all sorts of ritual actions and behaviors for holiness.  That’s part of religion.  But we also see something else of equal or perhaps greater importance.  And that is that holiness can be found in human relationships, feeding the hungry, taking care of the poor, giving shelter … even in our care for the natural world.  And so holiness is greatly expanded into the realm of ethics and morality.  The holiest people are those devoted to easing the pain, helping others.

We also learn that holiness is not a concept for the public to see, but it is incumbent upon us even in the most private of places … in how we treat our bodies and refresh our souls.

I want to go to one other important place in this conversation, and that is for all of us to realize that the actual commandment to be holy is not given in the singular.

You should be holy.  You — the people  should be holy.

Then it goes somewhere else.  This may be about the type of community we create.  It’s about the type of people we are.

What do we accept?  What do we allow? Where do we set our boundaries?  Does this not have implications for how we treat not only ourselves but also others?

Someone in a class yesterday indicated that when he was a kid it was so rare to see a Jew implicated in a crime.  And when it happened, it was a Shanda, a disgrace.  Because there was a sense of responsibility for each other and a realization that what you do reflects on your family and the people you come from, and today that is lost.  Harvey Weinstein and Michael Cohen … the list is long.

Do we have the courage to say that they besmirch us?

I assert the matter of holiness remains as significant now as it ever has been.  And we are challenged to create a people of holiness; our words and our deeds matter through this community!  We respect others.

I had an old friend when I started the seminary.  He lived in the apartment above me.  He was sociologist and philosopher.  His name was Max Kiddushin.  He coined a term — normal mysticism — and he said that was our aspiration.  Mystics have their heads in the clouds. Your challenge is to create moments of holiness in the everyday.  People like you and me — seeing holiness, the world and being a part of it creating it, aspiring to it.   And I’m certain we can do this.

You can be holy.  We can desire holiness.  And the world needs you to do it.  The world needs all of us to do it together.

Because this world needs to refine itself.

With honesty, it certainly needs kindness.

It needs respect for the elderly.

It needs reverence for the body.

It needs honor for workers

And all of these are categories of holiness.

It certainly needs people with the capacity to stand apart.

God, I don’t want to be a bird.

I don’t want to fly.

I don’t want glasses.

I want to move towards holiness

I want to be in a community, among people, in a nation and a world where holiness matters.

That’s what I want and I know you want it too.  And I want us to do it together.

Shabbat Shalom.